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Tinnitus Awareness in the Construction Industry

The UK’s Tinnitus Awareness Week runs from 8-14 February. Melanie Burden, Head of General Personal Injury at Simpson Millar Solicitors LLP, provides timely guidance for construction professionals on this widespread, but little-understood, condition.

Why raise awareness of the condition?

Tinnitus arising from hearing loss can be caused by work-related head and neck injuries. Once the damage has occurred, it can lead to permanent and in some cases, disabling symptoms. Raising the awareness of tinnitus in the workplace is essential as the condition can be prevented if proper health and safety adjustments are in place.

What is Tinnitus?

Tinnitus comes from the Latin word “ringing” and is used to describe the condition where the sufferer experiences a noise in the head or ears where no actual external noise is present. It can be heard in one ear, both ears or the middle of the head. The noise experienced can be low, medium or high pitched. Words used by sufferers to describe the sound include “buzzing, whistling, hissing, swooshing and clinking “. It can be temporary, it can come and go – or sadly for some sufferers, it can be constant. For those sufferers who experience permanent symptoms, it can have a profound effect on their day to day living, causing insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Who gets it?

It is estimated that ten per cent of UK adults have tinnitus, that’s around six million people (BTA – British Tinnitus Association), while further estimations see some 17,000 people in the UK suffer deafness, tinnitus or other ear conditions as a result of exposure to excessive noise at work (The 2008 / 9 Labour Force Survey (LFS)).

Anyone can get it at any age, including children, although it is more common for people over aged 65.

What can cause Tinnitus?

It can be caused by a head or neck injury. If the injury causes interference with the blood follow to the neck / head or interference with nerves or muscles in the area, then people can experience tinnitus. It can also come on after exposure to loud noise (a common example of this is when people come away from a music concert with loud ringing in their ears – this is usually temporary in nature). It can come on though after exposure to excessive or prolonged noise at work associated with some hearing loss.

It can even have a dental cause, be associated with hearing loss or an ear condition or be caused by excessive build-up of wax or an ear infection.

For some people there is no known cause. In fact, for 1 in 3 people with tinnitus, they don’t have any obvious problems with their ears or hearing (NHS Choices).

How could a construction worker potentially develop Tinnitus?

It might follow an accident at work which involves a blow to the head or neck or it might come on after exposure to a very loud one off noise or prolonged exposure to noisy machinery and equipment on site which brings on the onset of tinnitus associated with some hearing loss.

What is the relevant law which applies to the construction industry?

The Control of Noise at Work Regulations 2005 places an obligation on employers to reduce noise exposure for workers:

  • If there is a daily or weekly average noise exposure level of 80 dB (decibels), then the employer must provide information and training and make hearing protection available.
  • If the daily / weekly average noise reaches 85 dB, then the employer is required to take reasonably practicable measures to reduce noise exposure. The use of hearing protection is mandatory if the noise cannot be controlled or whilst the steps are being taken to reduce the noise levels.
  • The exposure limit is 87 dB above which no worker can be exposed.
  • Employers need to identify hearing protection zones (areas where the use of hearing protection is compulsory and mark the area with warning signs).
  • Ensure that the hearing protectors are regularly inspected and maintained.
  • Ensure that all employees are fully trained on the use and care of the hearing protectors.

Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, employers need to have regard to the safety other members of the public in addition to workers who might be exposed to excessive noise.

The Personal Protective Equipment Regulations 1992 impose a duty on employers in the construction industry to ensure all workers are provided with suitable head protection where there is a risk of injury to the head (this really applies to almost all situations on a Construction Site). This is to prevent or minimise the risk of head injury.

  • Hard hats should be inspected and regularly maintained.
  • They should be in good condition, if they are damaged they must be thrown away and replaced.
  • The style / design of the hard hat should not prevent workers wearing hearing protectors if they are needed.
  • Employers should ensure all workers wear them at all times on site.

Where can I find out any further information about my duties as an Employer to help reduce the risk of a head injury on sight or exposure to noise induced hearing loss?

There is no substitute for reading the full body of the relevant legislation listed above, this is readily accessible and downloadable on the HSE website. HSE provides some excellent guides for preventative advice to employers with free downloadable guidance booklets and leaflets including:

HSE – Noise – Advice for Employers

HSE – Noise – How do I reduce noise?

HSE Noise – How can I choose quieter equipment and machinery?

HSE Noise: Noise good practice – Concrete and cement production

HSE Hard hats – what you need to know as a busy builder

What should I do if I think I am suffering from Tinnitus?

Consult your GP for advice as soon as you can so any potential underlying causes can be ruled out and any treatment can be recommended if a cause is identified.

If a cause cannot be identified, then sadly there is no known cure but there are a number of treatments available to help sufferers manage and cope with their system on a day to day basis including:

  • CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Treatment
  • Counselling
  • Sound Therapy
  • Tinnitus Retraining Therapy